Race Weekend Central

2009 Season Preview: How Can NASCAR Survive the Economic Crisis?

After another long offseason, NASCAR is set to return to our lives with the 31st Annual Bud Shootout in less than two weeks! That means it’s time to get the blood racing and your mind fixated on another year of our sport. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR this year; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion and most of all, a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November.

Today’s Season Preview Topic: With the economic crisis front and center these days, all three of NASCAR’s top-three series are struggling to fill the fields. What should the sanctioning body do to cut costs and get both teams on the track and fans in the stands? Or have they already done enough?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)

NASCAR made a great choice to eliminate testing, but the whole thing means diddly squat if the big money teams don’t play along. Teams like Hendrick continue to test at non-sanctioned tracks in order to gain an advantage – and as long as that extra track time does give them a leg up on everyone else, the gap between the haves and have nots will keep growing and growing to the point that even the Energizer bunny won’t be able to catch up to them.

So, the key for NASCAR to level the playing field is to drop this ridiculous Top-35 rule, keeping the starting lineup intact for all but a select group of owners with three- or four-car super-teams. More people in an ownership role will lead to new drivers, better competition, and greater parity across the board. And while they’re at it, how about local businesses lowering prices for families riding out this economic storm, making it easy to attend a race instead of a $1,000 luxury.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary)

I’m not sure there is anything more that NASCAR can really do. Like Tom said, they’ve eliminated testing for the teams – although the haves will still spend money somehow while the have nots won’t and will likely continue to fall behind. But NASCAR can’t make sponsors sign up; and short of paying the teams to race, they can’t get them on the track.

Even if the sanctioning body cuts ticket prices at the tracks they own (ISC), unless they can also cut down the rest of the expenses needed to go to a race and then give fans who have lost jobs an income to justify the trip, they won’t do much to put fans in the stands, either. We’re beyond “putting on a better race” being able to fix this.

Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor (Fridays/Holding a Pretty Wheel)

What, exactly, has the sanctioning body done? While individual racetracks have made some nice offers to fans with discounted tickets and packages, I haven’t seen NASCAR do much of anything that will make a difference. Sure, there’s the test ban – but all that really means is that the small teams still can’t afford to test while the larger ones will just travel further to do so. And NASCAR hasn’t done anything for the fans at all since Brian France took the reins.

Cami Starr, Fantasy Racing Editor (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)

I think the sport’s done all that they can do at the moment. Eliminating testing is something they’ve done to try and help, but let’s be honest – the teams that have money will find ways to spend it and get an edge. They aren’t going to pump money into lesser teams, so there won’t be a change there. And even if NASCAR cuts ticket prices, they can’t put extra money in fans’ budgets to cover the additional costs to get to the track. Like everyone else, they are going to have to ride out this storm.

Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor: (Thursdays/Fanning the Flames)

Considering how the economic climate has affected everyone – from business to sports to the average family down the street – it’s hard for me to believe that one (or even two or three) measures will go very far in alleviating the financial crunch NASCAR is feeling.

As we know, every action has consequences, many of the unintended variety. Cut down time at the track? Then the track operators suffer. Ban testing? The big teams find loopholes and spend just as much, widening the gap between the haves and have nots. For every solution, there’s another problem.

So, I believe hunkering down and riding out this economic storm is the only thing we can do. The sport will survive – just as this nation will find its way through. In the meantime, the powers that be at NASCAR need to acknowledge the current issues and not pretend as if they don’t exist.

Bryan Davis Keith, Assistant Editor: (Sundays/Nationwide Breakdown)

NASCAR has a bevy of its own sponsors that it should be diverting into funding race teams instead of the sanctioning body itself. Meanwhile, cutting down ticket prices has still not been addressed in a circuit-wide fashion by Brian France. And the reluctance of NASCAR to ban testing entirely instead of simply at sanctioned tracks – a move that still creates a loophole – makes it clear that the sanctioning body has not taken any substantive steps to reduce the overwhelming cost of competition today. It’s not that they haven’t done enough. They really haven’t done anything.

Mike Lovecchio, Assistant Editor: (Mondays/10 Points to Ponder)

With a struggling economy, it’s obvious the corporate-driven sport of NASCAR has suffered. Mergers have become commonplace, Silly Season is now year-round, and fans are more confused than ever as to who’s in which ride and which car belongs to which team. With that said, this has become a crucial year for the sport to bounce back. In 2008, NASCAR still had 17 of the United States’ 20 highest-attended sporting events and was the No. 2 rated sport on television – but how long will fans keep coming around with thinner wallets? Furthermore, how long will teams be able to keep their head above water?

NASCAR needs to do more to ensure the sport stays strong in what looks to be a tough decade ahead. But what will the bigwigs do, and how long will they wait? Whatever they decide, they need to do it soon. A $55 ticket for the Daytona 500 is a step in the right direction for fans, but the teams are the ones who are struggling most. A ban on testing helps, but shortening race weekends – or races, for that matter – can also save teams money over the course of a season.

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)

First off, all events for the 2009 season should be shortened by 25% of their previous length. The savings to the teams with less wear and tear on their machines would be substantial. Let’s face it, the drivers don’t actually race hard until the final 20 miles anyway; and for fans, some races seem to drag on forever. Long-term, the sport needs to lose the road-course races and the plate races. The hideous expense to the teams for these six events could be eliminated at substantial savings to the owners.

As for the fans, step one is for any racetrack that still bans full-size coolers and tries to cloak their greed in a mantle of “preventing terrorist attacks” needs to drop the charade and let fans bring in outside food and drink. As a fan, I simply refuse to patronize any track that wants to charge me $11 for a cold hot dog and lukewarm watery beer. And for the love of all I hold holy, these track owners finally need to address the traffic issues that make arriving at and departing from Cup tracks an infuriating experience that would have Mother Teresa cursing like Andrew “Dice” Clay.

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: (Thursdays/Voices From the Heartland)

Has NASCAR done enough already? Are you kidding me! Someone please explain to me what they have done so far! Not one damn thing!

In 2009, there will be short fields in the races (starting with Fontana) and there will be even more no-shows in the stands than last year.

But Brian France does not possess the brains to do anything about it. Instead, he will continue to secure “official” sponsors for NASCAR, thus leaving even less for the teams to battle for what’s left. Don’t believe me? Go back and look at the transcripts of his press conferences that I wrote about last year. And do you see the France Family slashing ticket prices themselves – or, are they still just talking about what to do? Consider Brian’s answer back in November, when he was asked what NASCAR could offer in the way helping the fan save money:

“Quite frankly, we don’t have to [worry], because [the tracks are] right on top of that. They’re very sensitive to the cost and the challenges of race fans who live in this country anyway with the economy; it wasn’t lost on them, with respect to high fuel prices mostly in the summer.”

Is this man arrogant or what!? Here’s an idea, why not turn NASCAR over to Obama? He’ll fix it. He can fix anything!

Tommy Thompson, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Thompson in Turn 5)

Like the vast majority of American businesses – and for that matter, individual Americans – NASCAR has little choice but to tighten its belt and hold on as the economy continues to take a dive. There truly is little the corporate-dependent sanctioning body can do but share the pain when the very folks that prove the lifeblood of the sport are hurting. Limiting testing was an earnest move on the surface to save team owners a few bucks – but the results will not make or break them from continuing onward.

Unfortunately, until the Dow Jones Average is above 11,000 again and folks can get their credit card limits upped so that they can travel to an attend races, NASCAR and individual owners will struggle. No need for knee-jerk decisions, though; things will improve… eventually.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch Truck Series Expert: (Fridays/Tearing Apart the Trucks)

When NASCAR attempts to help teams by cutting costs, they manage to change rules that can frustrate teams and drivers while angering longtime fans. While I can understand the need to fill the fields this year, cutting costs for teams to make it to the track will most likely lead to a lot more start-and-park cars instead. As far as getting fans in the stands, the same thing needs to be done now that should have been done years ago – lower ticket prices.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Voice of Vito)

If the sanctioning body wants to cut costs, the schedule really needs to be trimmed down. Actually, the schedule needs to be trimmed down regardless. It’s basic economics at work here – there is a surplus of NASCAR and interest is waning. Just like a girl who throws herself at you, it’s a little unattractive, unbecoming and kind of a turnoff.

With the testing ban in effect at sanctioned NASCAR tracks, a lot of fat has been trimmed already. Nobody likes testing, for it is both time-consuming and exhausting for the drivers and teams alike. So, the sport has done well in this area so far – although it is distressing to see how many team members were laid off following the 2008 season.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert: (Mondays/Rookie Report)

There is only so much the sanctioning body can do before interfering with the sport’s free-market status. For example, if one owner tries to outspend his competitors, he automatically ups the ante for everyone else who wants to remain competitive… and thus, the “arms race” begins. So, even if NASCAR tried to monitor spending, teams would find a way around it. Just look at the way the big teams are circumventing the no testing restriction now by going to non-sanctioned tracks.

But the one thing NASCAR can do in the near term is shorten their race weekends. There is no reason why teams can’t arrive on Friday night, practice and qualify on Saturday and race on Sunday. NASCAR has already shown that if qualifying is rained out, they won’t try again on Saturday, so why keep the extra day? Eliminating one day per weekend adds up over the season when you consider accommodations and additional expenses for the crew.

Danny Peters, Senior Writer: (Tuesdays/Yellow Stripe)

Cost-cutting is a delicate process, but it’s clear there’s still plenty more that NASCAR can do. Working with the tracks to keep prices of tickets, hotels and entertainment at sensible levels on race weekends will be vital – but in my view, there are signs this is already happening.

Kurt Smith, Senior Writer: (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Well, the answer isn’t complex, but it is difficult. NASCAR must do what it has shown little capability of doing in recent years: nothing. Leave the sport, the car, and the rules alone, so that the teams that are struggling to get a handle on the new car have a chance to do just that. If NASCAR is correct in their assertion that the new car will save teams money, then they should stand by that statement. For once, NASCAR needs to bite down on their cheeks (their facial cheeks, I mean) and sit completely still.

Regarding putting fans in the stands, short of offering packages and discounted seats – and I mean on decent seats, not the first two rows on the backstretch – NASCAR could try buying out land near racetracks, building a huge hotel and offering discounted rooms with ticket sales. It’ll never happen, but it sounds nice. Make it so the hotel cost doesn’t kill people who go out of their way.

Oh, and while they’re at it, have them muzzle Bruton Smith about blackouts before any more fans are alienated.

S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist: (Tuesdays/Fan’s View)

I believe there is little NASCAR can do. The Big Four teams will continue to dominate, and the smaller teams will just get smaller. We might be treated to a few more shade-tree teams attempt the impossible, which I deem to be a good thing. But it is our expectations of the sport that will have to change, and it will be up to the tracks to trim ticket prices to draw in more fans.

Phil Allaway, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV)

As for putting fans in the stands, many of the tracks have already announced cuts in ticket prices for certain seats. Richmond, Fontana (Auto Club Speedway) and Texas are three examples of this new initiative that should go on across the board. However, tracks like Watkins Glen are simply standing pat, while others have simply accepted the lower attendance figures and closed off more seats, like Daytona International Speedway closing the Superstretch grandstand for the Coke Zero 400 last year. But no matter which direction they choose, the tracks should also work out deals with hotels so that prices aren’t ludicrously jacked up around race weekends, too.

As far as cutting costs go, the idea of Truck teams using a crate motor has been brought up in the past couple of weeks. That could help boost truck count (which is extremely low for this year) by allowing some Grand National (Camping World East and West) teams to attempt races – provided that they could get a truck. But the only real way to cut costs in the Truck and Nationwide series is to make those series more regionalized. The Nationwide Series essentially demands a Sprint Cup travel budget these days; this needs to be changed over the long term.

Doug Turnbull, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot & Who’s Not)

Eliminating testing was a good start at trying to reduce costs for teams, but it will not be enough. With teams folding left and right and the remaining ones finding ways around the current testing ban, the gap between the good and the bad teams is only going to grow, meaning less people will end up in the stands. One way NASCAR could help teams cover costs is encourage some of the sponsors that have become series sponsors to fund race teams instead, as some Frontstretch writers have suggested before. But short of NASCAR preparing the racecars like the defunct IROC Series, the sport should never dictate what these teams spend.

John Potts, Website Contributor: (Fridays/Driven to the Past)

They haven’t done anything. What is curtailing testing going to do for new teams or fans? NASCAR needs to get the cars back to where you don’t need an engineer and millions in equipment to set them up. Get away from the overgrown go-kart setup and bring the springs and the shocks back into play. This would give the driver and crew chief more of a role as well as lead to increasing participation by more low-dollar teams. For the fans, work with the motels and reduce prices there as well as at the tracks.

Mike Ravesi, Website Contributor: (Mondays/Bubble Breakdown)

If NASCAR wants to cut costs, then cut down the mileage on these races. For example, there’s no need for two 500-mile races at Pocono. The sport could also eliminate some races at tracks that have two dates, such as Las Vegas and California. Instead, put those races back at the heart of NASCAR country, at places like Rockingham and Darlington. It would cut down on travel expenses, if nothing else, and the good racing will bring the fans back (assuming they don’t do things like schedule The Rock in February again).

And if NASCAR really wants to get the attention of the fans, how about moving Watkins Glen and Talladega’s second race to Saturday night?

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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